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Published: Friday, 11/14/2008

Rush on to abandon children in Nebraska

ASSOCIATED PRESS

LINCOLN, Neb. - The mother was running out of more than patience when she abandoned her 18-year-old daughter at a hospital over the weekend under Nebraska's safe-haven law.

She was also running out of time: She knew state lawmakers soon would meet in a special session to amend the ill-fated law so that it would apply to newborns only.

"Where am I going to get help if they change the law?" said the mother, who lives in Lincoln and asked to not be identified to protect her adopted child.

More than half the 33 children legally abandoned under the law since it took effect in mid-July have been teens.

But state officials may have inadvertently made things worse with their hesitant response: The number of drop-offs has almost tripled to about three a week since Gov. Dave Heineman announced Oct. 29 that lawmakers would rewrite the law. With legislators set to convene today, weary parents like the Lincoln mother have been racing to drop off their children while they can.

Yesterday, authorities sought a 17-year-old girl who fled an Omaha hospital as her mother tried to abandon her.

Child welfare experts said the late deluge of drop-offs was inevitable. After all, they said, some date had to be set to begin changing the law.

But some them said lawmakers and the governor missed chances to change the law early because they underestimated the number of desperate families looking for help. Mr. Heineman called the session only after five drop-offs in eight days.

Reluctance to pull senators away from their jobs and election campaigns, along with the estimated $70,000 to $80,000 cost of a special session, were among the reasons the governor's office cited in holding off on calling the session sooner.

"I think there was a fair amount of denial on the part of legislators that it would snowball," said Karen Authier, executive director of the Nebraska Children's Home Society.

The safe-haven law was intended to save "Dumpster babies" by letting desperate young mothers abandon newborns at a hospital without fear of prosecution. But lawmakers could not agree on an age limit, and the law uses only the word "child." All states have safe-haven laws, but in every state but Nebraska, the law applies to infants only.

Ms. Authier said her group and others had warned senators after the law passed that there could be problems, but the lawmakers did not believe it.

The Lincoln mother who dropped off her 18-year-old daughter said she was repeatedly turned down when she sought help from police, state social services authorities, and the girl's school. The woman said her daughter had been diagnosed with a mental illness when she was 12 and had deep psychological scars from childhood abuse and from being left alone with her dead biological mother for a week.

The woman said she felt she had no choice but to leave her daughter at the hospital after a flurry of assault, stealing, sleeping around, and cutting school.

"I thought she would get help" by the safe-haven law, she said.

However, state authorities refused to take the young woman into custody, saying Nebraska law regarding juveniles does not let authorities take in anyone older than 17. The woman left with her daughter.



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